The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes

The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes (Elizabeth Sifton, The Nation)

The once frivolous industry has grown old and weary:

What now? Publishers are battening down, and chain stores are struggling, having staked so much on nationally merchandised dreck, having committed themselves to imitating the look of the big indies but never quite matching their tighter local focus and skill in “hand selling” genuine books to readers. Anyway, the entire world of American retail business is veering toward obsolescence. Must books now find their way in cyberspace?

This prospect is even more alarming than the crisis threatening brick-and-mortar stores, for the World Wide Web is an ocean with few buoys to mark navigable channels of meaning. The channels we navigate on it are mercantile channels, designed to be lucrative–but not for us. The omnipresent money-grubbing–far removed from the pure, open-access Eden that the Internet’s founders claimed they wanted–may seem natural to Americans used to wearing corporate names on their clothing and seeing their public spaces defaced with company logos and ad slogans, but the habitat is unnatural for the true life of the mind, politics or art. In this dystopia, one can scarcely get attention paid to new books except those that fit in with the flora and fauna already found there. True, you can easily reach niche audiences and specialty communities for your oh-so-unique book, but what of the general culture? How is your book being read? And in what manner might you try–say, ten years from now–to write something new? How will you know if it’s any good? How will it become known? Will it be a book?

Like everyone else, I couldn’t be more grateful for the stupendous riches that great search engines find for me on the web. Like everyone else, I’m now accustomed to the speed and ease with which I can locate “content.” No argument there. But my reading on the web is of a completely different order from my reading of or in a book, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t already put in decades of bookish exertion. If I’d done my schoolwork on a computer, if I’d grown up text-messaging and Twittering, I’d not only listen and read differently, but I’d think and express myself differently. It’s no surprise that teachers and writing instructors report big changes in their students’ habits of attention and modes of expression. No surprise. We’ve always known that technologies new and old affect our inner imaginative understanding of the world. This is why we must still ask, of the possibilities that “books” could be offered in other formats or sold in new ways (once we’ve developed reliable income streams from writing and selling them), what kind of imaginative energy, what kind of reading–or readers–will Scribd, Kindle, Sony Reader or other electronic devices attract in the years to come? And what kind of writing?

It’s a colossal irony to have the guys and gals of Amazon, Google and their ilk lusting for free book “content” as premium material on which to stake their enlarged claims to commercial riches. For these clever mathematicians and engineers who are shaping the electronic business of our time and the archives of the future, these baby-faced young entrepreneurs, have risen to their mercantile eminence without encountering books, and don’t think they need to. I enjoyed the fatuous surprise of Google’s Sergey Brin discovering that “There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.” Translating this backhanded recognition of value into his own debased lingo, he understands that books make for “viable information-retrieval systems,” information being the only cultural signifier he recognizes, evidently. His company’s amazing presumption that book people should simply hand over the keys to their priceless kingdom shows how completely he and his colleagues misunderstand what is at stake.

But these Internet people don’t care. For billionaires like Brin, accessing the giant river of infinite book “content” onto which they can glue paid advertising is simply a giant new way to make more money, and they are single-minded about that. The giveaway is not only in their ignorance but in their reluctance to share the wealth. For its Look Inside program, Amazon demands that publishers give it, gratis, electronic files of the books, along with blurbs and cover art, arguing that in return the publishers will have increased sales. How might you prove or disprove that? (Publishers might recognize Amazon’s argument, since it resembles the pathetically phony one about composition costs that they themselves used against writers years ago.) The (not yet settled) settlement between Google Book Search and the publishers who sued it for copyright infringement proposes to give a breathtakingly audacious near-monopoly to Google and mingy terms to writers. We publishers seem to have forgotten that Google’s and Amazon’s profit margins are triple or quintuple ours, and we haven’t always checked our contracts with the authors.

It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive.Changed reading habits have already transformed and diminished them both. I, for one, don’t trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order. Three centuries ago, John Locke agreed that we shouldn’t base our freedom to read books on the proclaimed good offices of the business itself. “Books seem to me to be pestilent things,” he wrote in 1704, “and infect all that trade in them…with something very perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind, that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society, and that general fairness that cements mankind.”

*Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (Norton).

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